North Cape Coastal Drive

I’ve always believed that the harder a place is to get to, the more worthwhile it is to see.  GPS, Google Streetview and the like have made the entire world more accessible, but there are some places you have to see with your own eyes, down overgrown rural lanes, that have remained slightly beyond the grasp of these new technologies. I was lucky enough to find one of these very places recently, and it was right here on Prince Edward Island.

My fiance and I packed the car with everything we’d need for a weekend of camping, and a few things we didn’t. You just never know when the mood will strike for a rousing game of washer-toss. Once half the contents of our basement were not so neatly loaded into the hatchback, we hit the road and headed west (or “up west,” as Islanders say), destination uncertain.

We checked into a campground, set up camp, and at the advice of friends drove to the community of Burton, located along the North Cape Coastal Drive (more on that later).  I can’t give you specifics about where we were, because there are really none to give. We found an unmarked lane and carefully maneuvered the car down it until we ended up in a field overlooking the ocean.  What an incredible place we had stumbled upon. It truly does pay to be adventurous.  We had stepped out of our car and into a postcard. We spent the evening there, making our way down the beach where we enjoyed a bonfire under the stars.

red cliffs and beachIn the morning, we drove back to the beach we had discovered and spent the day walking along the coastline, sandwiched between the gentle lapping of waves and the imposing red cliffs PEI is famous for.  The afternoon sun intensified the deep clay colour of the rock formations, casting shadows under the jagged, obtruding sections of sandstone. Each cove we entered seemed to have a better view than the last, and all were empty. It was a perfect day in its peaceful simplicity.

Having spent an entire day on the same beach on Saturday, we decided Sunday should be spent exploring a portion of the North Cape Coastal Drive. It’s possible to do the entire drive in half a day, but you’d be doing yourself a disservice. Sights like these need to be savoured.

We decided to begin the drive in earnest at North Cape, the Northwestern tip of the Island. We drove inland from the coast and cut through the village of O’Leary, stopping at the Canadian Potato Museum along the way. Unfortunately, we didn’t consult the Welcome PEI guidebook before we went and made the mistake of arriving three hours before the museum’s Sunday opening time of 1 p.m. Luckily for us, the big sculptured potato is too big to fit inside the building, so we were able to snap some shots of the mammoth spud before we continued on our way.

Windmill_smNext stop was North Cape, and we knew we had arrived when we spotted enormous white windmills peppering the flat coastal landscape.  North Cape is home to the Wind Energy Institute of Canada, the national facility for testing small wind turbines. Wind energy is also generated here at the North Cape Wind Farm and fed back into an energy grid.  We visited the North Cape Wind Energy Interpretive Centre and paid roughly $5 each to walk through an exhibit that consisted of informational panels and hands-on displays explaining the history of the area and the science behind harnessing energy from the wind.  Armed with our newfound knowledge, we walked the Black Marsh Nature Trail to get a closer look at the windmills perched on top of red cliffs and nestled amongst trees dwarfed by their height along the meandering path.

Back on the road, we headed for Skinner’s Pond at the advice of a woman who worked at the interpretive centre gift shop.  The role of fishing and farming on the Island seemed especially evident in this area of the province as we passed countless potato fields and noticed stacks of lobster traps behind many houses. The potato fields were particularly striking with their acres of perfectly uniform rows.  Once we arrived in Skinner’s Pond, I was thrilled to see a sign in front of an old schoolhouse proclaiming the community to be the hometown of Stompin’ Tom Connors.  I had known the late national music icon had spent his childhood on PEI, but I hadn’t really thought about exactly where he lived. It made my day to just stumble upon it. I excitedly jumped out of the car and took pictures of the schoolhouse and sign from all angles, feeling very much like a snap-happy tourist but too intent on capturing the scene to care.  path to skinners beach_smAt the end of Stompin’ Tom Road there is a short boardwalk built over sand dunes that leads to Skinner’s Pond beach, a beautiful white sand beach inhabited by only a handful of sun-seekers on this particular day.

We continued on our way, deciding our last stop would be West Point. Along the way, we stopped at North Cape Coastal Drive lookout points placed in just the right spots to stop and marvel at the incredible vistas of rolling farmland dotted with windmills and lush green potato crops growing from their raised red beds that appear to stretch out into the ocean. If the locals in Skinner’s Pond thought I was eccentric with my frantic picture-taking, the people driving past us while I was on my fiance’s shoulders trying to get my camera to a better height must have thought I was downright crazy. Islanders are a pretty hospitable bunch though, so I convinced myself they appreciated my enthusiasm.

West Point Lighthouse-smWe arrived in West Point just as ominous black rain clouds started to roll in and block the sun. It didn’t seem to faze the beachgoers who stubbornly remained stretched out on their towels, perhaps grateful for a moment’s reprieve from the beating sun. The dark clouds provided a stunning backdrop to the West Point lighthouse, a structure made even more nautical by its crisp white and black siding. If you only have time to visit one lighthouse in PEI, this should be it. The West Point lighthouse is not only unique in its appearance, it is also one of the Island’s few active lighthouses. The interior has been converted into an inn comprised of 13 rooms, each with a view of the Northumberland Strait, and a museum filled with a collection of memorabilia, artifacts and displays.

We headed back to the city, sunburnt and content, the memory card of digital camera full, discussing all we had seen over the weekend and how much of the North Cape Coastal Drive we have yet to see. Next weekend, we promised each other, next weekend.